Stop whining already, and enjoy the racing

The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDIANAPOLIS - Gentlemen, start your engines. Children, cut out your carping.

The Greatest Spectacle In Racing is no longer the Indianapolis 500, but the unseemly sniping between its outgoing and incoming drivers. The world's most famous auto racers have abandoned the world's most famous auto race in an escalating turf war with Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George.

All sides are being stubborn. No one is acting especially smart. The warring factions have scheduled competing races for May 26 in what amounts to a game of corporate chicken. There can be no winners here, only survivors.

The absent Michael Andretti has declared Indy's revised race unsafe. The enduring Eddie Cheever called this attitude ''arrogance.'' The spirit of compromise is being crushed by internecine squabbling. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was baseball.

Sparse crowds

Indy's pole position changed hands twice in the last half hour of qualifying Saturday afternoon - first by Arie Luyendyk, finally by Scott Brayton - but these dramatic moments were muted by a sparse crowd at the celebrated track.

Both the high speeds and the low turnout could be attributed in part to the cool weather conditions. Yet an objective observer might also conclude that the new Indy drivers are better than their predecessors would admit, while the missing stars make more impact than Indy officials might have imagined.

By the end of the day, both sides should have had ample incentive to seek middle ground. Not that they needed any more.

''It's the Indy 500,'' Johnny Unser said, simply. ''It's the greatest race in the world. There are a lot of drivers wishing they were here. I know of several. You'll find all the drivers back eventually. Somehow or another, you'll see everybody competing for this race.''

Most of oval racing's ranking drivers - Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal - are boycotting Indy this year over the track's heavy-handed qualifying rules. In order to promote the Indy Racing League circuit, and reduce the costs of competition, George has guaranteed 25 of the 33 spots in the 500's starting grid to the top IRL drivers, provided they can qualify their cars at 220 mph.

This left only eight positions for other elite drivers, and led to the revolt that gave rise to the inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway. Two weeks hence, racing's most renowned drivers will compete for a prize that hardly amounts to a pimple on the Indianapolis 500. Imagine Nick Faldo passing up the Masters for a shot at the Skins Game.

''I have a lot of respect for the drivers in Michigan,'' said Brayton, the repeat winner of Indy's pole position. ''But nothing is more exciting than Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Pole Day. . . .

''The Indy 500 is what Indy car racing is. I used to listen to (radio announcer) Sid Collins when I was 4 and wanted to come to this place. There are a lot of people that love this place, and you can't take this away from people.''

Deep talent pool

One of Tony George's concerns was that his place was becoming the exclusive province of racing's elite, that the sport was growing so expensive that a driver's skill was becoming secondary to salesmanship. Unless a young driver could attract sponsors, he was unlikely to develop.

Saturday's speeds (and safety) would suggest that racing's talent pool is pretty deep. Twenty drivers qualified on the first day of time trials, at speeds ranging from Brayton's 233.718 mph to Jim Guthrie's 222.394. They improved on the track records in year-old cars, benefitting from the track's recent resurfacing and holding mishaps to a minimum.

Andretti alleges that the Indy track was not built for such speeds, and predicts ''someone's going to get hurt.'' Rahal, who won the 500 in 1986, says the race, ''threatens the well-being of a lot of people.''

''I feel so happy to be here, I don't let any of that bother me,'' Guthrie said. ''Let them do what they want to do. We're here at the Indy 500, and they're wishing they were.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published May 12, 1996.